Functional independence
July 17, 2019

Older adults: Daunted by learning a new task? Learn three

UCR research shows older adults can remain independent longer and increase their cognitive prowess by learning multiple new things at the same time

Author: J.D. Warren
July 17, 2019

Learning several new things at once increases cognitive abilities in older adults, according to new research from UC Riverside.

UCR psychologist Rachel Wu says one important way of staving off cognitive decline is learning new skills as a child would. That is, be a sponge: seek new skills to learn; maintain motivation as fuel; rely on encouraging mentors to guide you; thrive in an environment where the bar is set high. 

Rachel Wu
Rachel Wu

“The natural learning experience from infancy to emerging adulthood mandates learning many real-world skills simultaneously,” Wu’s research team wrote in a paper recently published in The Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences. 

Likewise, the group’s hypothesis held, learning multiple new skills in an encouraging environment in older adulthood leads to cognitive growth. The prize: maintaining independence in old age. 

Building on lifelong learning research, previous studies have demonstrated the cognitive gains of older people learning new skills, such as photography or acting. But these skills were learned one at a time, or sequentially. 

For Wu’s studies, the researchers asked adults 58 to 86 years old to simultaneously take three-to-five classes for three months — about 15 hours per week, similar to an undergraduate course load. The classes included Spanish, an iPad tutorial, photography, drawing/painting, and music composition.

The participants completed cognitive assessments before, during, and after the studies to gauge working memory (such as remembering a phone number for a few minutes), cognitive control (switching between tasks), and episodic memory (such as remembering where you've parked). 

After just 1 ½ months, participants increased their cognitive abilities to levels similar to those of middle-aged adults, 30 years younger. Control group members, who did not take classes, showed no change in their performance.

“The participants in the intervention bridged a 30-year difference in cognitive abilities after just six weeks and maintained these abilities while learning multiple new skills,” said Wu, an assistant professor of psychology.

“The take-home message is that older adults can learn multiple new skills at the same time, and doing so may improve their cognitive functioning,” Wu said. “The studies provide evidence that intense learning experiences akin to those faced by younger populations are possible in older populations, and may facilitate gains in cognitive abilities.”

In addition to Wu, authors for the paper, “The impact of learning multiple real-world skills on cognitive abilities and functional independence in healthy older adults,” include UCR's Esra Kurum, a statistics professor; Annie Ditta, a professor of psychology; psychology graduate student Shirley Leanos; and undergraduates Gianhu Nguyen, Miranda Felix, and Hara Yum. Non-UCR authors include Carla Strickland-Hughes of University of the Pacific, and George Rebok of Johns Hopkins University. Funding was provided in large part by an American Psychological Foundation Visionary Grant.

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